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June 9, 2022
Everything you need to know to land a user experience research internship—including a shortlist of open roles.
Before you start sending out applications, it’s important to understand the skills, responsibilities, and experience you’ll be expected to have.
Every UXR internship will have slightly different expectations, so carefully browse through the listing before you apply to align your resume and cover letter. Generally speaking, your responsibilities as a UXR intern will include:
Your interviewer may also look for other qualities and soft skills like:
Additionally, most internship programs prioritize students or very-recent graduates. If this is not the case for you and you’re transitioning from a different industry, there are still plenty of opportunities for beginning your UX research career. Non-traditional internships or apprenticeship programs, mentorships and contract roles (more on these below), or independent projects can all help you land your dream job in UXR.
“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
When you’re first getting started in UXR, it’s easy to let yourself be engulfed by theory without ever taking the leap into research practice—but in an increasingly agile and evolving industry, it’s impossible to know everything before you start.
The experience you gain during a user research internship will help you develop your professional intuition and reveal the subtle nuances that can’t be conveyed in a textbook.
Plus, internships help you:
(As a side note, there's much to learn outside an internship as well—through books. Check out this big list of 50+ book recommendations from leaders in UX research and design.)
As I mentioned before, your portfolio is one of the most important assets to have on-hand while applying for UX research internships or roles.
You might be thinking: Isn’t this a catch-22? How am I supposed to create a UX research portfolio without actual experience?
No worries—your hiring manager will almost certainly understand that an entry-level applicant or intern is unlikely to have worked on real-life projects in a business setting. You can get around this by doing UX research projects independently or incorporating them into your current role.
Start paying close attention to the user experience of the products you already use and try to develop a critical eye for UX:
Your portfolio doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to demonstrate some understanding of research methods and processes, as well as a natural curiosity and an eagerness to work.
If you’d like feedback on your portfolio before you apply, there are some communities on Slack, Linkedin, and Facebook (such as Hexagon UX’s #growth-portfolio-feedback Slack channel) that are designated specifically for this purpose.
This isn’t new advice by any means, nor is it unique to UX research.
Networking allows you to discover and access opportunities you wouldn’t be able to find on your own, stay on top of trending topics in your industry, learn from your peers, and receive expert advice about how you can develop professionally.
Luckily, there are plenty of digital and non-digital spaces available for networking with UX professionals:
Remember: Don’t be shy.
Most of the people in these communities are there to network as well, and you’ll likely be welcomed with open arms if you put yourself out there. The people you choose to surround yourself with have a major impact on what you learn, how you think, and where you go in life, so the sooner you immerse yourself in UX research communities, the sooner you’ll be on your way to an established UXR career.
Most UX research internship programs are seasonal and have a set recruitment period—and in some cases, early applications are prioritized or considered for special perks.
The application deadline will vary for different opportunities, but as a general rule, you should start applying at least three months prior to your ideal start date.
Starting early will ease some of your anxiety around meeting deadlines, increase your chances of being considered before all the slots are filled, and maximize your options for different companies and programs. Plus, it'll give you time to prepare your answers for the UX research job interview questions.
Internship listings may list some ‘required’ skills or qualifications you don’t have. Apply anyway!
Many companies are flexible about your experience and qualifications, as long as you demonstrate the aptitude and willingness to learn. The point of an internship is to learn, so being a little ambitious during the application process can lead to richer, more valuable skills and experience than you might get otherwise.
P.S.—If you’re really struggling to find a traditional internship program or you have a dream team you’d love to work with, you can also apply to companies with research teams that don’t have an open internship role. If your portfolio, resume, and cover letter catch their attention, then they may be open to creating an internship for you or placing you on a waitlist for the future.
P.P.S—If you’re feeling extra scrappy, you might consider applying to contract entry-level UXR roles as well. Widen your search to companies in other countries that are open to remote applicants. The pay for these roles will often be lower than US rates for an entry-level UXR position, but on par with many internship salaries.
Not only can mentors help you find and get an internship in UX research, but they can also become a lifelong friend, coach, and teacher as you progress in your career.
For example, Danielle Hope Diamond, former content contributor for User Interviews, spoke to UX mentors and experts to help her master the new field, fast:
“I ended up video chatting with three different UX researchers, and my conversations were invaluable. Talking to them reinforced what I learned online, opened my mind to new insights and ideas, cleared up things I misunderstood, and answered some questions that had been on my mind.”
Here are some (free) resources for finding UX research mentors:
If, for whatever reason, you’re unable to find a mentor using any of the above resources, just make sure to apply to internship opportunities with an existing UX research team. You’ll learn much more quickly and effectively by having an experienced UX brain to pick than by diving into your first hands-on experience as a UX research team of one.
The main difference between an entry-level interview and an internship interview is that you won’t have professional experience to speak about, so the questions will likely be centered around your goals, personality, work ethic, and potential to grow.
You’ll probably be asked some basic background and career-related questions like:
As well as some experience and skill-related questions like:
Try writing out your answers to potential interview questions ahead of time. Find ways to directly translate your skills and experience to the qualifications and responsibility for a UX researcher. Speak with confidence, use examples where possible, and demonstrate a willingness to grow and adapt.
As a UX research intern, you’ll be working with real-world professionals who are busy and managing multiple projects.
There may be times where they forget to respond to your inquiries, emails get lost in their inboxes, or last-minute projects come up unexpectedly—so you can’t always expect them to chase you down to schedule an interview.
Make it as easy as possible for your hiring manager to move you forward in the process by following up with them a few days after you send in your application, then again a few days after your interview. They’ll appreciate your proactivity and eagerness to move forward.
Last, but not least: Don’t get discouraged.
Researching, applying, and interviewing for internships is a long process with a lot of competition.
If your search takes longer than expected or you miss out on opportunities you were excited about, reset, refocus, and return to your goal. Have patience, dedication, and a growth mindset, and the right opportunity will come along.
You don’t have to start perfectly—you just need to start.
The good news is that there are tons of places you can look for user research internship opportunities. The bad news is you might have to do some digging to find the right one for you—but as an aspiring researcher, I believe you’re equipped for the job. 😉
Here’s where to start:
I’ve also put together a shortlist of promising-looking internships open at the time of writing:
If you know of any other opportunities that would be a good fit for this list, send me the details at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to add it for you!
They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity—so when you stumble upon the perfect UX research internship for you, you’ll want to be prepared.
Break into the industry on a strong note by exploring our comprehensive UX Research Field Guide, with everything you need to know to impress your interviewer and land the UXR internship.
Content Marketing Manager
Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.